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From Sea to Shining Sea

POEMS OF THE AMERICAN WEST, Edited by Robert Mezey, Everyman's Library/ Alfred A. Knopf: 256 pp., $12.50 POEMS OF NEW YORK, Edited by Elizabeth Schmidt, Everyman's Library/ Alfred A. Knopf: 256 pp., $12.50

September 15, 2002|RUTH FRANKLIN | Ruth Franklin is associate literary editor of the New Republic.

Philip Larkin, who spent nearly all his life in northeastern England, chafed at the idea that place could have anything to do with poetry. In "I Remember, I Remember," the very antithesis of the regional poem, the speaker is traveling on a train that passes through Coventry, the town where he (like Larkin) grew up. First he does not recognize it, then he recounts a litany of experiences he never had there: childhood games unplayed, romances unconsummated, poetry unpublished. " 'Oh well, / I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said. / 'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.' "

But what if it is "the place's fault"? Nothing may happen anywhere, but everything must happen somewhere. That is the premise of "Poems of the American West" and "Poems of New York," two new entries in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series. Both anthologies make a case--if at times an uncertain one--for the idea that a place does leave a profound impression on the poetry that it produces. It is implicit even in their minimalist titles: These are poems not about places but of them.

To be sure, there is something unavoidably reductionist about categorizing poetry in terms of setting. Even poems that seem to be explicitly centered in a certain location--Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Arnold's "Dover Beach"--use location only as a launching pad for a larger meditation. The best poems are not New York poems or Paris poems or Djibouti poems--they are simply poems. "The Waste Land" would look ludicrous in an anthology of "Poems of London."

But if place is not always a useful way of thinking about poetry, poetry can be a useful way of thinking about place. The poems in both books are not so much about physical regions as states of mind. The images that serve to locate so much of the poetry--the arroyos and the saguaros, the Horn & Hardart and the World Trade Center--are elements of an elaborately constructed, long-enduring national mythology that has its roots in art itself: movies, television, photography and also poetry.

A poem that we call a "Western poem" or a "New York poem" is one that corresponds with the mental images and emotional expectations that we already carry within us. And, bringing their readers full circle, the poems in these books recapitulate these national symbols, creating them anew for another generation of readers.

New York is the epicenter of American mythologizing, partly because at any given moment it holds the country's highest concentration of poets. "Poems of New York," edited by Elizabeth Schmidt, is remarkable for the sheer number of the greatest American writers that it includes: Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Dorothy Parker, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop. Some of these poets are commonly associated with New York, but some are not--Wallace Stevens' "Arrival at the Waldorf" is an unexpected surprise.

Other poems have taken on such a universal connotation that their particularization is a shock: the ferry in Edna St. Vincent Millay's sentimental anthem "Recuerdo" ("We were very tired, we were very merry--/ we had gone back and forth all night on the ferry") turns out to be the Staten Island Ferry. Langston Hughes' most famous poem is more commonly known by its first line, "What happens to a dream deferred?," but its title, we are reminded, is actually "Harlem."

If many of these poems have become landmarks more of particular movements--the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, the Beats--than of the city itself, others are New York poems to the core. Whitman's "Mannahatta" rises out of the swirl of chaos at the city's beginning:

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city

Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,

I see that the word of my city is that word from of old ....

Moving toward the present, we see Sara Teasdale strolling around Union Square, Allen Ginsberg gazing down from the top of the RCA Building, Billy Collins bopping through Times Square listening to a Walkman. The cacophony of voices on the pages of "Poems of New York" is not unlike the jumble of sounds one hears walking down a New York City street.

New York's voices and cultures may seem infinite, but the West, "containing worlds as different as Oregon is from New Mexico or Montana from Southern California, ... is almost as hard to see as America itself," Robert Mezey writes in his introduction to "Poems of the American West." He has tried valiantly to include as many of these different perspectives as possible: Bertolt Brecht on Hollywood, Janet Lewis on the redwood forest, Yvor Winters on Wyoming, J.V. Cunningham on Montana, Weldon Kees on Salt Lake City, William Stafford on San Francisco--plus Chippewa and Pawnee tribal songs, folk songs about Jesse James, country music lyrics by Randy Travis and a little cowboy poetry to boot.

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